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Top U.N. Rights Official Seeks U.S. Support for Conference on Racism

By Nora Boustany
Friday, February 9, 2001; Page A24

Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday to drum up support for a world conference on racism to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7.

Robinson is hoping that such problems as xenophobia, ethnic strife in Africa, trafficking in women and children, the marginalization of minorities, issues of migration within Europe and anti-Semitic acts there, as well as racial profiling in the United States, will be addressed at the conference. The goal of the meeting, called World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance, is to produce legislation that participating countries can enact.

The conference and the preparatory meetings in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East will cost $14 million. Robinson has said that $9 million has already been committed or paid from a total of $11 million she hopes to raise; an additional $3 million will come from her U.N. agency's coffers.

The Clinton administration pledged $250,000, and Robinson told a small group of journalists over breakfast yesterday that she hoped to increase Washington's share of the funding needed to hold the meetings. She noted that contributions from the European Union and individual European countries were "significantly more."

Similar conferences were held in 1978 and 1983, with apartheid in South Africa the dominant issue. Robinson, a former president of Ireland, stressed that the Durban meeting would have a broader reach, including "a whole agenda of practical measures," such as the protection of victims of racism and other forms of intolerance at the national level. She dubbed the conference a "Magna Carta for victims."

Youth groups as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will participate, since the aim will be "a lot of looking forward" in preparing the younger generation for diversity. She said it was time to reinforce the international framework for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. A growing tendency to embrace a "fortress Europe" attitude in the face of increased migration is cause for concern, she said recently. In comments at the United Nations on Tuesday, Robinson rebuked British Home Secretary Jack Straw for proposing new measures to exclude immigrants, according to news service reports.

The Durban summit "won't wave a wand and magically solve racial problems, but it will deepen our awareness for the need to solve them," Robinson said. "It is not going to be an easy conference but a significant one, and NGOs will bring up issues not raised by the [governments] themselves."

There have been regional meetings in Latin America, Europe and Africa, and Asian countries have chosen to have their preparatory meeting in Tehran. The venue should prove interesting, given Iran's record of discrimination against the Bahai community and its treatment of Iranian Jews, not to mention Iranian intellectuals and thinkers. Israelis are entitled to go as observers, but will they?

©Copyright 2001, Washington Post Company

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